The Ice Age Cousin
Exactly 150 years ago, a small valley near Düsseldorf caused a sensation: In August 1856, quarry workers in the Neandertal came across old bones - and thereby triggered a scientific revolution.
Mettmann, Sept. 4. In the last few days, a surprising find has been made in the neighboring Neanderthal, the so-called Gesteins. Through the breaking away of the limestone rocks, which of course cannot be lamented enough from the picturesque point of view, a cave was reached, which in the course of the centuries had been filled with clay mud. In clearing away this clay a human skeleton was found, which no doubt would have been disregarded and lost had not, fortunately, Dr. Fuhlrott von Elberfeld would have secured and examined the find.
After examining this skeleton, specifically the skull, the human being belonged to the family of flatheads, who still live in the American West today, and several skulls of which have also been found in recent years on the upper Danube near Sigmaringen. Perhaps this find will contribute to the discussion of the question: whether these skeletons belonged to a Central European primitive people or just to a horde (with Attila?) roaming around.
The Barmer Bürgerblatt was probably not one of the most renowned publications in the press. But with this small report published on the front page on September 9, 1856, the newspaper from today's Wuppertal - without realizing it - wrote scientific history.
Today, the valley named after the hymn writer Joachim Neander, through which the Düssel meanders towards the Rhine between Mettmann and Erkrath, would probably only be known as a nearby excursion destination among stressed Düsseldorfers. In the middle of the 19th century, however, things looked very different: the industrial revolution also swept through the Rhineland, and the hunger for natural resources grew enormously. Lime in particular was indispensable for the smelting works - and there was plenty of it here. The tranquil Neandertal became an important supplier of limestone.
And so in August 1856 (the exact date is not known) two quarry workers came across mysterious bones in the small Feldhofer grotto. No big deal-animal bones kept popping up in the hard clay, after all. The remains would probably have disappeared forever in the overburden if one of the quarry's co-owners, Wilhelm Beckersdorf, had not accidentally observed the find. He ordered the suspected bear bones to be picked up from the rubble: a skullcap, two femurs, two bones from the right and three from the left arm, part of the left ilium, fragments of a shoulder blade and some ribs.
Cave Bear or Bow-Legged Cossack?
The quarry owners consulted the teacher and fossil expert Johann Carl Fuhlrott from neighboring Elberfeld. A wise decision in hindsight – because the amateur naturalist immediately recognized the explosive nature of the find: It was not a cave bear that had breathed its last but a human being.
The note from the Barmer Bürgerblatt also made it to Bonn, where the anatomy professor Hermann Schaaffhausen was keenly interested in the old bones. On June 2, 1857, Fuhlrott and Schaaffhausen presented the find to the experts in Bonn; Two years later, Fuhlrott's publication "Human remains from a rock grotto in the Düsselthal" appeared in the negotiations of the Natural History Association of the Prussian Rhineland and Westphalia - the creature from the Neandertal entered scientific soil and thus founded scientific paleoanthropology.
It wasn't easy for the fossil from the start. Its anatomical features - in particular the conspicuous ridges above the eyes - initially remained a mystery. The Berlin pathologist Rudolf Virchow thought the bones were the remains of a sick, misshapen being; the Bonn anatomist August Franz Mayer even interpreted the find as bow-legged Cossacks from the Napoleonic Wars.
It was only gradually that the realization prevailed that it must be a question of an early human being – an interpretation that was revolutionary in the 19th century. But the differences to anatomically modern humans - Homo sapiens - were so clear that it seemed justified to grant the Neanderthals the status of a separate species. The Irish geologist William King took the decisive step in 1863 by devising a scientific name for the new species: Homo neanderthalensis.
Curiously, King immortalized the German spelling of the word "Thal" that was common at the time, which only lost its "h" with the (also hotly disputed) spelling reform of 1901. Actually, the species could have had completely different names. Because the type specimen "Neandertal 1" was not the first Neanderthal to come to light again. As early as 1830, Philippe-Charles Schmerling discovered a child's skull in the Engis cave near Liège. But the influential French paleontologist Georges Cuvier didn't want to believe in an early man from the Ice Age - the find was forgotten.
A Neanderthal female skull unearthed in Gibr altar before 1848 fared not much better. It was not until 1863 that the find reached the London zoologist George Busk, who had translated Fuhlrott's publication into English and recognized the similarity with the bones from the Düsseltal. After the old name "Calfe" for Gibr altar, Busk's colleague, paleontologist Hugh Falconer, suggested the species name "Homo calpicus" in 1869 - too late, the name Homo neanderthalensis was already in use.
Numerous other finds have completed the picture of Neanderthals in the last 150 years. Even in the Neandertal, where the original site was long since destroyed by quarrying, the archaeologists working with the prehistorian Ralf Schmitz from Tübingen were able to track down further bone fragments which, like the original, are "Image" about 40,000 years old. alt="
Today, paleontologists suspect that the Neanderthals, whose tracks can be traced back several hundred thousand years in Europe, developed from Homo heidelbergensis. Defying the harsh climate of the Ice Age, he created the Mousterian culture in the Middle Palaeolithic – known in archaeologist circles as the Middle Palaeolithic – which owes its name to the French site of Le Moustier. He is also still credited with the Châtelperronian in the transition to the Upper Palaeolithic.
A Cultural Revolution
But 35,000 years ago - as if out of nowhere - a figurative art of a high standard emerged, as the imaginative frescoes in the Chauvet cave or the filigree ivory figurines from the Swabian Jura impressively show. Archaeologists already count these works of art as part of the Aurignacian – the Upper Palaeolithic began.
What happened? The anatomically modern human, Homo sapiens, had left his African homeland and set foot on European soil as Cro-Magnon man – here, too, a place in the prehistorically extremely productive Dordogne has been immortalized. Until a few years ago there was no doubt in the anthropologists' guild that only he was capable of the works of art of the Aurignacian. However, the voices are now increasing that the Neanderthals, who have lived in Europe for a long time, could at least have been involved in the cultural revolution. Because the image of the dull, club-wielding creature that still prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century has changed more and more into a sensitive and artistically talented personality who buried their dead with dignity and - squeezed into a dark suit and with a newspaper under the arm - outwardly would hardly have differed from today's contemporaries. No one doubts one of the most human traits - language - after the hyoid bone of a Neanderthal was discovered in Israel's Kebara Cave in 1983.
Species or subspecies?
Several researchers even went so far as to deny the species status of Neanderthals. After all, no one knows how the encounter between Neanderthals and the newcomer from Africa ended. Did the new wipe out the old, or did they live side by side in peaceful harmony? Did they even mix? A 25,000-year-old child's skeleton found in Portugal in 1998 points to the peaceful version: the American paleontologist Erik Trinkaus interpreted the find as a mixed-race child. Then the man from the Düsseltal would be one of our own species, who would have earned the name Homo sapiens neanderthalensis as a subspecies.
However, both morphological and genetic data make this interpretation unlikely. In the meantime, geneticists have been able to analyze the prehistoric genome - with clear results: While the Cro-Magnon man is genetically very similar to today's Europeans, he differs significantly from his contemporaries, the Neanderthals.
Accordingly, no Neanderthal genes have strayed into our genome. But why did our cousin from the Neanderthal have to give way when our ancestors entered the field? He took that knowledge with him to his grave.